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Disability and work: Inclusion or coercion: speech by the Minister for Workforce Participation to the Australian Social Policy Conference 2005, University of NSW.

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Disability and Work: Inclusion or Coercion

Australian Social Policy Conference 2005

Social Policy Research Centre, University of NSW

Thank you Alan (Dr Alan Morris).

Thank you very much for the invitation, I am pleased to have the chance to speak with you on this important topic - ‘Disability and Work: Inclusion or Coercion’ - in this the 25th year of the Social Policy Research Centre.

Let me say at the outset, I think that work, where there exists a capacity to work, is fundamental to a person’s sense of wellbeing.

Having a job creates the opportunity to get ahead financially, to make friends through work and to contribute to the community and these are things that make people feel better about themselves and to feel connected with others.

I don’t believe that people should miss out on all the benefits that come from work simply because of a disability.

Like many of you, it is my priority to help as many people as possible with disabilities into work.

Since becoming Minister, I have had the chance to interact with people who have disabilities about their abilities, their desires, their dreams and their goals.

I have been impressed with the drive and determination of many people with disabilities to work, and to remain in work, despite often significant barriers.

If I were to summarise, what people with disabilities have said to me it is:

● that they want to work to their individual capacity;

● that a diversity of, and sometimes multiple types of disabilities make it harder to get and to keep work; and

● that they appreciate being able to fall back on the safety net of income support if needed.

No one has said to me that they want to live on the pension alone.

I think it is always important to keep a few things in mind when thinking about people with disabilities and work. And before I outline how the changes in the Government’s Welfare to Work package are designed to promote inclusion, I wanted to share a few of those with you;

● I recognise that the experience of disability is highly varied - that no two people with the same condition will have

the same experience; ● I understand that people’s ability to work may fluctuate and change; and

● I recognise that the attitudes of employers and co-workers is often critical to the success of someone with a

disability. ● But mostly, I recognise that talking in generalities about disability is very difficult - especially at a forum like this!

However, I am encouraged by the many success stories that I hear from people with disabilities and the employers who display an open mind and a willingness to give people a go.

It is cause for optimism. Although there is more to be done, attitudes have changed and there are more and more people with disabilities entering or remaining in the workforce.

I’d like to take a moment to share a story about a person with a disability I have had a bit to do with recently and his employers.

Last week I travelled with a young man - Dean Clifford, to meet his employers Ken and Sheryl Mills who run a car dealership in Kingaroy.

Dean has a very severe and confronting disability - known as EB or cotton wool syndrome - but his determination to work is inspirational.

His employers have shown great commitment to help Dean succeed in the workplace. Indeed, since meeting and working with Dean and the disability open employment service that assists him, they have taken on another four staff with disabilities.

All this in a small country town in Queensland. Dean’s story is not an isolated example for me.

Today, I am sure we are not going to argue about the merits of including people with disabilities in the workforce.

The advantages of inclusion for individuals, their families, their community and the country as a whole are self evident.

I’d like to move on and tackle the other theme of your forum - coercion.

Coercion is a very emotive word, not deliberate I am sure.

There’s a school of thought that would say that the Government’s Welfare to Work changes will push people with disabilities into poverty, that the Government is making it harder for people with disabilities, not easier, to get ahead.

Well that was never the intention and I reject it completely.

The Government has no interest in forcing people who cannot work - because of their disability, to look for work.

We have said all along, and will continue to say, that if the nature of your disability is such that you cannot support yourself through work, then the Disability Support Pension will be there for you.

However, community expectations around disability have changed.

The credit for this goes to those people with disabilities who have simply got out there and proved their critics wrong.

These are people who have proved that it is ability - not disability, that counts.

Clearly the general community has a lot more contact and exposure to people with a disability than they may have in previous generations.

I believe the general public understands now, in a way they didn’t previously, that disability is on a continuum - that the presence of a condition by itself is not necessarily an indication of what a person is capable of doing.

At the same time as awareness has increased, so has the desire to provide assistance increased.

The community, including those with disabilities themselves, has a low level of tolerance for people who exaggerate the impact of their injury or illness and try and get onto the pension as the easy option.

And like most Australians, I strongly believe that the DSP should be there for people who need it the most. Our capacity to help those in genuine need is diminished when limited resources are stretched to cover those not in genuine need.

In short, the community feels it is a fair principle that people are asked to work in keeping with their abilities and capacity.

This very simple sentiment - asking people to work in keeping with their capacity, is the basis of the changes in the Government’s Welfare to Work package.

The biggest change, in a practical sense, is that we ask people who can work part time to work part time.

This group of people, people with disabilities who can work 15 to 29 hours per week, will be asked to actively look for work and meet mutual obligation activities, such as the highly successful Work for the Dole.

There are some people who are highly resistant to the idea of people being asked to contribute something back to the community in return for income support.

But if you speak, as I do, with jobseekers themselves, many welcome the opportunity to do something useful for the community. To have a routine, to have normal expectations placed on them to include their self confidence and self esteem and to stay connected with others through a number of Government programs.

I do not think that this is coercion. I think it is a way of keeping people connected with those who are best able to help them.

In asking people with disabilities to participate more actively, the Government has recognised the need to support people in practical ways through this process.

Over the next four years, the Government will be spending an extra $555 million to help people with disabilities into work.

From 1 July 2006, there will be an additional 101,000 employment assistance places available to help people with disabilities make the move into work.

There will be an additional:

● 20,700 places for disability open employment services - plus the introduction of a demand driven model to assist

those with a new participation requirement, ● 41, 700 places for vocational rehabilitation,

● an estimated 31 700 places for job seekers with disabilities in the Job Network - but again, this is a demand driven

model, and ● 7 500 places for people with disabilities in the Personal Support Program.

To help make sure people get the right service, a new Work Capacity Assessment process will be introduced.

This will allow for the independent assessment of the work capacity of people applying for income support or seeking employment assistance, by qualified health professionals.

The intent is to make sure people are given feedback about their work capacity, to ensure people get the most suitable form of income support and are referred to the best form of either rehabilitation or employment assistance.

For those people who might need a bit of assistance before they can participate in job seeking, a new Pre-Vocational Account will be available to purchase short term interventions, such as counselling or pain management, to help them.

In addition, the Government has:

● Extended the Pensioner Concession card to those who will be on Newstart Allowance and can work 15 to 29 hours

per week, ● Introduced more generous income taper rates which will allow people to keep more of their income support as

they earn, ● Increased the rate of Mobility Allowance from $69 to $100 per fortnight,

● Extended the two year suspension provision so that people on the DSP who leave the pension for work, but are

unable to maintain their employment for any reason, will be able to return to DSP within two years.

I believe this is a good balance of incentives and support to help people make the move into work. It responds to many of

the concerns raised by people with disabilities - particularly about the value of the Pensioner Concession Card.

Clearly there are many and varied barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Of course one of these critical barriers which we must overcome is that of discrimination by some employers.

Employers are critical to the success of what the Government is trying to do to help people with disabilities move from welfare into work.

As I said earlier, I am heartened by the many stories I hear of good employers who will give people with disabilities a go. The culture is changing, but there is a long way to go.

I am very interested in what employers say about what helps them make the decision to take on someone with disability.

Our response to employers to help them recruit further needs to be practical and straightforward in order to be effective.

I often get asked if I think employment quotas are the way to go, and I don’t believe quotas are helpful - I do not think that form of coercion works for employers. Buying a job in these environments is not sustainable and in my view not in the long term interests of the job seeker.

I do think, however, that a more natural coercion is emerging for employers, and will become more evident in coming years.

That is - that the number of people entering the workforce is expected to decrease.

Employers are already, and will increasingly, need to think laterally and creatively about how they organise their workforce and who is part of their workforce.

I think the time is ripe to start pushing the envelope with employers, to remind them continuously that people with disabilities can have the same range of skills and attributes as others, and that in many cases, they are more loyal and flexible employees.

We need to help people with disabilities be ready to ride the crest of this wave to their advantage.

The Government is already working with those industries where high jobs growth and labour shortages are expected, such as the retail and hospitality industries.

We have recently conducted a pilot project with the National Retail Association in Queensland that has seen 30 people on the DSP given training and on the job experience in the retail industry. These job seekers are due to finish their training shortly and will be actively promoted to employers.

We are priming employers, in these industries and others, to recognise that people with disabilities are there to help them meet current and future workforce challenges.

As part of the Welfare to Work package, the Government is developing an Employer Demand Strategy.

The strategy has a number of elements, including:

● A tenfold increase in the workplace modifications scheme and wage subsidy scheme ($29m in total),

● The establishment of a information and telephone support service for employers on disability issues - similar to

the Jobs Accommodation Network model in the United States, ● A focus on developing a specific strategy on mental health issues in the workplace, and

● The establishment of an Employer Roundtable - which has already commenced work on a high level strategy to

promote the employment of people with disabilities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If we are to make a real difference here, to make the world of work more inclusive of people with disabilities and to encourage people with disabilities to step forward, then I think we need to be approaching the issue on many fronts at once.

I believe what the Government is doing in terms of changing the income support system, significantly boosting employment assistance programs and working with employers will advance that cause.

In closing, I’d like to thank Allan and the organisers of the conference - I wish you every success for the remainder of your discussions.

I will be happy to take questions from the floor.

Thank you.

For further information contact:

Ruth Gibson 0407 299 118